Delivering on the Zeitenwende would strengthen Germany’s role as a Euro-Atlantic security agenda-setter

07 October 2022

Russian President Putin’s unjustified, unprovoked and brutal invasion of Ukraine fundamentally transformed Germany’s perceptions of the Euro-Atlantic and global security environments. In response, Chancellor Scholz delivered his Zeitenwende (‘turning point’) speech in February, announcing a sea change in German post-war security policy. Ever since, Allies have been keen to see how this new era will materialise. To learn more about Germany’s rapidly evolving security policies and international security cooperation, a delegation from the Defence and Security Committee at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) visited Berlin, Kassel, Fritzlar and Wiesbaden from 26 to 29 September. Spanish lawmaker Fernando Gutierrez, Vice-Chairperson of the Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Defence and Security Cooperation (DSCTC), led the visit organised and hosted by the Assembly’s Bundestag and Bundesrat delegations.

“Europe is not at peace; this requires action on the part of all Allies – Germany will do its part,” Dr Tobias Lindner, Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office, told the delegation. Allies announced a strong response to Russia’s aggression at the NATO Summit in Madrid via a series of robust new deterrence and defence initiatives. According to Lindner, Allies must also remain unified and continue with their support for Ukraine’s defensive efforts. As another German official stressed: Ukraine’s defence against Russian aggression represents “the fight for European freedom”. 

The announced Zeitenwende will be essential to Germany’s commitment to meet its new security priorities, which include playing a pivotal supporting role in a stronger Alliance security posture in Europe. The Zeitenwende is typically viewed in two parts: the EUR 100 billion special fund for defence investment for immediate force modernisation needs and a commitment to invest more than 2% of Germany’s GDP in defence from 2023 forward. Some experts, however, told the delegation to understand it as three-pronged: funding for military and defence initiatives, direct support for Ukraine and energy security. The broader principles of the first component were agreed to in the German government, leading to the allocation of the special fund and baseline spending levels for future annual budgets. Germany has already spent or earmarked a portion of this fund, for example, by purchasing F-35 fighter jets, but additional allocations remain to be determined. There is broad public agreement in Germany to support Ukraine, but just how much and the kinds of support remain a key subject of debate. The third component has been partially addressed, but substantial work is yet to be done to ensure that a full-scale energy crisis is avoided as Germany weens itself from Russian gas and oil and faces the trilemma of obtaining a future energy supply that is secure, sustainable and renewable. 

Although Germany’s Chancellor committed to exceed the 2% goal after 2023 experts told the delegation this now appears unlikely due to disagreements among the governing coalition about its implementation; as such, the EUR 100 billion fund must close the gap in the meantime. These predictions increase the importance of spending the fund strategically, particularly when it comes to capabilities that cannot be purchased ‘off-the-shelf’, such as cyber defence systems. 

As experts noted, a fundamental shift within Germany’s government, military and civil society is required to realise such sweeping political commitments. As politicians encourage this cultural transformation, concerns about the gap between political commitments and practical implementation heighten. As a result, participants and briefers discussed the relatively short time horizon Germany has to move forward such substantial change to its defence policy. 

While some of its recent commitments affect Allies indirectly by supporting a more robust approach to Euro-Atlantic security, others are more straightforward. For example, officials noted that Germany is drafting a bill for a new arms export policy, which is expected to relax requirements on military exports to the EU and non-EU nations significantly. 

Germany is also focused on implementing decisions made at the Madrid Summit. As officials noted, NATO’s new Strategic Concept is informing Germany’s first National Security Strategy, which will be adopted in early 2023. According to government officials, this document will also focus on resilience and strengthening the European pillar of NATO. Siemtje Möller, Parliamentary State Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Defence, also underscored Germany’s role as a Framework Nation assisting with the reinforcement of Eastern flank security via its leadership of the NATO battlegroup in Lithuania. 

These shifts and uncertainties are deeply intertwined with Germany’s economic situation as well as the potential energy crisis. Now cut off from Russian gas and oil, Germany is working to find creative solutions for achieving greater energy resilience. Not only is the German government facing the difficult decision to renege on a commitment to shut down remaining nuclear power plants to diversify energy sources, but meeting energy transition goals will also require further digitalisation, an area in which Germany’s progress has been historically slow, experts noted.  

The Zeitenwende represents Germany’s chance to transform and modernise at the domestic defence industrial level and expand its international security contributions. The challenge, experts said, will be to maintain the political support necessary for the reform agenda.  

Officials stressed, however, that Germany remains steadfast in its commitment to Ukraine and underlined that this commitment will not waver regardless of how long Russia’s war continues. 

Experts in Berlin expressed a lack of optimism regarding Russian citizens mobilising against Putin, as the authoritarian control mechanisms are simply too strong in the country at the moment. Therefore, the German government is preparing to support Ukraine in the short-, medium- and long-term; as one official stated, “as long as it takes”. Officials also noted that, as a sovereign nation, only Ukraine can decide the conditions for any kind of negotiated settlement with Russia. 

Broad consensus exists in the German government on the main strategy for Ukraine support, German officials told the delegation. The coalition government, however, has yet to lay out a clear timeline for the delivery of additional funds and equipment to Ukraine. These details are expected to become clearer in November, when Germany adopts a new budget for 2023. 

Bundestag briefers said the recent shifts in German defence policy will not end with the special fund and support for Ukraine’s defence. According to Ms Möller, this shift is ‘here to stay’. 

In addition to seeking the ways and means to increase support for Ukraine, officials also pointed out that maintaining cohesion in the Euro-Atlantic region, including by becoming an even more predictable and pragmatic partner, remains a priority. 

Highlighting the enduring close US-Germany security partnership, the visit also included briefings at US Army Europe and Africa’s Headquarters in Wiesbaden. The role and function of the US command in Germany has evolved significantly since it was first established at the end of WWII. Today, USAREUR-AF trains and leads the U.S. Army Forces in the European and African theatre in support of US European Command and US Africa Command. The decision to consolidate US Army Europe and US Army Africa into one Army Service Component Command came in 2020. This linkage illustrates a re-calibration of threat perceptions due to the interconnectedness of challenges in Europe and Africa, even before Russia’s war in Ukraine. US Experts briefing the delegation noted the merging of regional focuses mirrors NATO’s 360-degree-approach to deterrence and defence. 

USAREUR-AF has also adapted to what officials in Wiesbaden called the immediate ‘near-peer’ threat of Russia. Since February, the US Army reinvigorated its regional presence, marking a shift from previous decades, in which US troop numbers in Europe were declining. An element of the reactivated V Corps’ headquarters deployed to Germany in March to support command and control of US Army forces in Europe. At the NATO Summit in Madrid, the US announced it would establish a new permanent V Corps Headquarters Forward Command Post in Poland to improve US-NATO interoperability across the Alliance’s eastern flank.  

Parliamentarians were briefed on USAREUR-AF’s tasks, such as hosting rotational and reserve forces to sustain operations in Europe and Africa, referred to by officials as a ‘total army solution’, including commanding 41,000 US soldiers and overseeing activities in 104 countries. Additionally, experts noted the key role USAREUR-AF plays in fostering awareness and preparedness as a strategic hub for NATO’s deterrence and defence initiatives in the heart of Europe, for example, by contributing to multinational operations such as Atlantic Resolve and Enhanced Forward Presence. 

Also located in US Army Europe and Africa Headquarters in Wiesbaden is the International Donor Coordination Centre (IDCC). During a visit to the IDCC, the DSCTC delegation learned about the vital role the centre plays in matching donor supplies with what is needed on the battlefield in Ukraine’s ongoing defensive operations against Russia. As briefers noted, the Centre grew out of a combined US-UK military effort and is staffed by a crew of service members from NATO Allies and partner nations working alongside an embedded Ukrainian cell to facilitate direct communications inside of Ukraine. 

Additional topics of discussion during the visit included: 

  • The future of energy from a defence and security perspective 
  • Defence procurement and supply chain challenges 
  • Defence science and technology 
  • German defence priorities and new defence investments 
  • Cybersecurity challenges  

The delegation also visited Rheinmetall’s Competence Centre for tactical wheeled vehicles and Fritzlar Air Base to meet with the German Army’s Aviation Corps and learn about the Bundeswehr’s role in supporting NATO operations. 

Photos of the visit are courtesy of the German Bundesrat and Bundestag.
© Jörg Carstensen and Henning Schacht.

Read also